Jiayuguan Journal: As Interest Grows in Great Walls, an Ancient Chinese Fortress Beckons

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JIAYUGUAN, China — The fortress stands watch in a parched land with snow-encrusted mountains beyond, a lone rook on the empty chessboard of western China’s Gobi Desert.

All around spread the sands of solitude, which through the centuries have served as a passage for armies, merchants, monks, envoys and explorers. Those entering or leaving the fort passed by the sign hanging from a tower: “The first and greatest pass under heaven.”

For more than 600 years, Jiayuguan, translated as Jiayu Fort or Jiayu Pass, has been the anchor of the westernmost point of the Ming-era Great Wall, a series of monumental ramparts that stretches a winding, mountainous 5,500 miles from here to the Yalu River, on the North Korean border.

Under the Ming, who ruled China for nearly three centuries, as many as 1,000 soldiers used Jiayuguan as a garrison. Beyond it were the “western regions,” the lands of largely nomadic people considered barbarians by the ethnic Han.

Few structures in the world are as iconic as the Great Wall, which reached its definitive form under the Ming dynasty. Though Jiayuguan was an important marker of the Chinese Empire’s frontier, it has long been overshadowed by sections of the wall outside Beijing.

Now, city and provincial officials here are on a campaign to grow international interest in Jiayuguan’s heritage and transform the area from a center of steel production to both a tourism destination and a cultural oasis in the desert.

“There has always been interest in the history of Jiayuguan,” said Zhang Xiaodong, director of the Jiayuguan Great Wall Museum, which is next to the ancient fort. “From a historic perspective, Jiayuguan and the wall were mainly used for military defense.”

But in a broader sense, he said, the Great Wall “represents the Chinese nation’s spirits: the working people’s wisdom, their perseverance to become stronger and the ability to fend off enemies’ intrusion.”

Great walls built to repel the “other’’ have recently become part of the global conversation, sparked by politics and popular culture. The global hit “Game of Thrones” has an ice wall that separates so-called civilization from an army of the undead. President-elect Donald J. Trump, who promised to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, has compared his plan to the Chinese Great Wall. He even said it would be named the “Great Wall of Trump.”

This month, theaters in China began showing “The Great Wall,” a fantasy action movie starring Matt Damon, directed by Zhang Yimou and produced by Chinese and American companies. The film’s conceit is that the wall was built to keep out monsters. Mr. Zhang, China’s most famous director, shot scenes in the deserts of Gansu Province, where Jiayuguan is, though not at the fort itself.

“We definitely did make the connection with Gansu Province as the terminus, or start, of the Silk Road and the perfect area for our heroes to enter China,” said Peter Loehr, a producer.

I visited Jiayuguan while on a recent high-speed train trip across Gansu. I had been here once before, as a backpacker in 1999, when few tourists came. My father had passed by nearly a half-century earlier.

The high-speed rail route opened in 2014 and follows the old Silk Road along the barren Hexi Corridor, a strip of high plains that runs between two mountain ranges and that historically bridged the ethnic Han regions of interior China to the western edge of the empire.

Jiayuguan is already benefiting from the arrival of the high-speed railway and growing interest in the Great Wall. During China’s big October holiday week, Jiayuguan received 442,800 visitors, a 22 percent increase over the same time last year, according to the China National Tourism Administration.

Map | Jiayuguan, China

A 2014 provincial document designated Jiayuguan as one of eight Gansu tourism zones to be developed by next year, bolstered with favorable land, financial and tax policies. In October, Jiayuguan’s Communist Party chief, Liu Peng, said that steel production was a drain on resources and that it was critical to expand tourism.

Two new tourist parks are being built in the area, and an annual cross-desert car rally passes through Jiayuguan. The town is also the unlikely site of a new annual short-film festival that hosts international filmmakers.

Near the wall are underground tombs from the Wei and Jin dynasties, which were discovered in 1972 by a shepherd and existed for more than a millennium before the fort was built. There are as many as 1,000 of the tombs, though only one is open to the public. Most striking are the small bricks that make up their interior walls — many have an individual scene that evokes daily life: feasts, farming, herding horses and camels.

Jiayuguan falls in the heart of the Silk Road region that is the foundation of the “One Belt One Road” transnational economic plan that President Xi Jinping has been promoting. By emphasizing Silk Road history, officials are highlighting eras in Chinese history when the Great Wall represented openness to the outside world rather than insularity and xenophobia.

Jiayuguan sits along one of the narrowest parts of the Hexi Corridor. Camel caravans laden with goods traversed the route. The strip is only nine miles wide at Jiayuguan, and so it was easy to guard. “This landscape made it difficult for cavalries to pass,” Mr. Zhang, the museum director, said.

Last year, workers completed a four-year, $290-million restoration of the fort, which dates to 1372.

In addition to the fort, two other notable remnants of history are scattered around the Jiayuguan area: a section of the rammed-earth Great Wall that has an eroded beacon tower and a stretch of the wall that winds steeply over hills, as it does outside Beijing.

Because of their recent restoration, the fort and the winding wall feel like film sets. On the afternoon I visited, tour groups poured from buses to clamber up to the fort’s ramparts. Atop the battlements are three-story temple-style buildings with red wooden pillars and long curved eaves.

Viewed from the battlements, the sands stretch to the horizon, and it is not hard to imagine phantoms of the frontier’s ancient inhabitants drifting across them at twilight.

For millenniums, the Hexi Corridor has been occupied and controlled by various cultures and civilizations. Ethnic Qiang, Tibetans and Mongolians each held sway. Under the Ming, Buddhist ethnic Uighurs asked to settle in Jiayuguan, and eventually they moved even farther east. I visited their descendants, the Yugurs, on the same train trip.

Luo Zhewen, a prominent architectural historian, wrote in a 1977 paper that Jiayuguan was “a great testimony showing the unification process of our country with many ethnic groups.” The words echo Communist Party positions.

After the Ming were toppled by a peasant rebellion, China was invaded by ethnic Manchus, who breached the Great Wall at the coastal fort of Shanhaiguan with the help of a treasonous general. The Manchus established the Qing dynasty. Under them, the wall became almost meaningless as a frontier border — after all, the Manchus were “barbarians” from beyond the wall.

“It ceases to serve as the boundary between civilization and barbarity, between the lands of the Hua and the lands of the Yi,” said Mark Elliott, a Qing historian at Harvard University. “It goes from playing a marker between us and them, between inner and outer, and then it becomes an internal border.”

Because the Communists are trying to hold onto most of the vast territory of the Qing, despite all the problems this entails, Jiayuguan has not been restored to its original role as a frontier marker. That was apparent even in the early days of Communist rule, when my father was posted as a soldier of the People’s Liberation Army far beyond Jiayuguan, to nomadic lands on the nation’s outer rim.

In the autumn of 1951, he rode past the Great Wall at Jiayuguan in an army truck. The railway had not been built yet. The wall was crumbling. “No one went there in those days,” he told me. “The wall was made of earth, not bricks, and it was in bad condition.”

As the truck continued west, the wall vanished, and around him stretched nothing but the timeless sands.

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